Judge Paul Corupe really wishes his Vespa made him look like a badass.
"We're going nowhere. fast"—Vance (Willem Dafoe)
When the classic American biker film The Wild One was released in the early 1950s, Marlon Brando made a black leather jacket, jeans, and a crooked cap the official uniform of juvenile delinquents in the making. Whatever your opinion of the film, you can't deny its fashion-forward influence, and Brando's timeless style has since been canonized into the visual lexicon of American culture; a classic look of rebellion that has been copied, spoofed, rediscovered and co-opted for the better part of the last century.
The first feature film made by co-directors Monty Montgomery (who later produced both Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks) and Kathryn Bigelow (best known for Strange Days and her vampire/white trash road movie Near Dark), The Loveless is a stylish biker flick that sucks up and redirects Brando's projected cool like a fuel intake valve on a Big Twin FL Electra Glide. Even if the plot has a little engine trouble along the way, this is still a slick, visually enticing film that transports us to the deep south of 1959, where leather jackets are frowned upon and rockabilly cool is strictly forbidden.
Facts of the Case
On his way to check out the action at the Daytona Speedway, Vance (Willem Dafoe, The Last Temptation of Christ) pulls his motorcycle into a Georgia truck stop to meet up with Davis (rockabilly singer Robert Gordon) and his gang from Detroit. The locals take to the black leather-clad bikers with a mixture of terror and anger, and only grudgingly agree to let Vance's ex-cellmate Tarver (J. Don Ferguson, Radioland Murders) repair his bike at the nearby garage. While the others drink, play with switchblades, and generally kill time in the redneck-populated town, Vance is seduced by the tomboyish Telena (Marin Kanter, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains), a young girl with a slick car on a fast road to trouble. The first confrontation occurs when Telena's father barges into their clandestine motel room, and the entire town reaches their boiling point when Vance and the others stop by the local watering hole before moving on.
In addition to The Wild One, The Loveless borrows a little from Two Lane Blacktop and a handful of juvenile delinquency B-films from the 1950s, but the film is most heavily indebted to Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, a fetishistic clash of bikes and leather all set to vintage pop songs. Like Anger's seminal short, The Loveless is less of a narrative than it is an onslaught of hyper-real 1950s nostalgia that seethes with sex. Unlike Scorpio Rising's blatant homoeroticism, The Loveless softens the gay overtones (although one scene has Telena's father throwing one of the bikers out of the bathroom with his pants around his ankles), but you certainly don't need Freud sitting beside you on your couch to explain why the scenes of grease monkey Tarver lovingly repairing his bike are intercut with a couple heatedly making out. The film is undoubtedly successful at what it attempts to achieve: a protracted parade of belt buckles, jukeboxes, car fenders, and crank shafts lovingly splashed with neon lights that steep that film in a surreal, sexually repressed 1950s atmosphere.
Unfortunately, The Loveless frequently crosses the double yellow line into style over substance, as this achingly slow pace tends to work against the film dramatically. Lingering, static shots of Vance drinking coffee and smoking at the truck stop, Tarver working on his bike, and Davis picking songs on the jukebox are beautifully photographed, but that doesn't make them less susceptibility to monotony. Even when the film pulls up alongside a critical plot point, such as Vance's initial meeting with Telena, the film takes far too long establishing their respective cool, pacing each other like wildcats while spitting out enigmatic, slang-filled speeches. And yet the film deliberately seems to be building towards an explosive ending of unmitigated action, one that could possibly save the picture—but the final climax turns out to be more of a stutter than a rumble.
Dafoe, in his first memorable role, is charismatic and unflappable; he looks like he was born into the leather suit, and yet he stands apart from the other, more violent members of the gang. Although he never quite achieved the same level of accolades, Robert Gordon's performance is surprisingly sufficient as well. The other bikers, mostly played by first-time actors, are little more than set dressing, as characterization often becomes another casualty of the film's preference for visual style over plotting.
The score was originally going to be entirely composed by Robert Gordon, but budget issues resulted in a few more artists being called in to fill out the soundtrack. Lounge Lizards leader John Lurie shows up to do faithful recreations of a variety of sleazy rockers from the late 1950s, but it's the title song, Eddy Dixon's brilliant hillbilly howl "Relentless," that really stands out and gives the movie a moody, ominous tone.
A film full of glossy images definitely relies on a good-looking transfer, and Blue Underground delivers yet another winner on The Loveless. Color is spot-on, with intense blacks and good detail levels. Grain and a few minor source artifacts are occasionally apparent, but don't detract from the overall presentation. Soundtrack and dialogue both fare well on the remixed Dolby 5.1 audio track, but gearheads will appreciate the extra effort that spreads the rumbling engines in every direction so you can almost taste the exhaust fumes.
The Loveless also has a spliced-together audio commentary, moderated by Blue Underground's David Gregory. Monty Montgomery dominates the track, with some additional, spliced-in comments from Willem Dafoe and Kathryn Bigelow, who were recorded at a different time. Perhaps there weren't enough interesting anecdotes about the making of the film to justify two separate tracks, but I really dislike this practice, as it could have been achieved just as easily with one commentary and an interview featurette. Still, it's extremely informative, and barring my own preferences, worth a listen. A theatrical trailer and an extensive still gallery finish off the supplementary features.
While certainly an achievement, The Loveless isn't particularly an audience-friendly film. In fact, it's likely to alienate just as many as it wins over with its chrome and hot leather obsession, and it doesn't help that it the film forgoes an adequate plotline to string the fetishized images together. In the eyes of the filmmakers, though, these criticisms are undoubtedly beside the point, and devotees of Kenneth Anger will definitely find something to enjoy here, as will fans of Dafoe or Robert Gordon.
What is The Loveless guilty of?
Well, what've you got?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Willem Dafoe, Kathryn Bigelow, and Monty Montgomery
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.